The Call for Church Discipline
1 Corinthians 5:1-13
“... Allan Bloom argued in his 1987 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind [Simon and Schuster], that tolerance, built on the assumption of moral relativism, not truth, has become the chief “virtue” in America. To judge any behavior or philosophy as evil is unthinkable. Bloom found that many of his students were hesitant to label even Hitler as evil! That prevailing cultural “virtue” of tolerance has infiltrated the evangelical church. Even if you’ve been in the church for years, chances are that you’ve never seen a church discipline a sinning member. We think that to judge any behavior as sin is to “throw the first stone.” It’s perceived as unloving. And so, churches either accept or overlook gross violations of biblical standards, sometimes even when pastors fall into serious sin.” - Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.
There is a hesitancy on the part of many church pastors and elders to hold their church members accountable for their actions. They tend to treat churchgoers as “consumers” or “customers”. Few churches deal directly with personal sin. The consumer mentality brings with it the “customer is always right” attitude. Therefore, they are never questioned or insulted. (copied)
An unrepentant man is an active leader in a church while continuing his porn addiction; a wife in the ladies Bible study leaves her husband for another man; a deacon is abusive to his wife and children, a gossip continues belittling and slandering other church members, a church leader is addicted to alcohol, a young unmarried couple live together, two families in the church continue their age-old feud … and the lists goes on and on. Yet the church does little to deal with these issues. Nothing new though! Paul points out the neglect of dealing with sin in the church by addressing a particular situation in the Corinthian church.
Paraphrasing First Corinthians 5:1, we read, “It is actually widely reported that there is fornication (sexual immorality) among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the pagans, that one would sleep with his father’s wife.” Evidently, it was common knowledge in the church that there was a member of the church who was actively committing scandalous acts of sexual immorality with his stepmother without remorse or repentance. This was not a one-night stand but was a continuous situation. This type of sexual relationship was forbidden in the Old Testament Scriptures in Leviticus 18:6-9, and amazingly, it was also a gross violation of the laws of the pagan Corinthian community whose goddess was Aphrodite and whose very name, "Corinth", had became a synonym for immorality.
John MacArthur concerning this situation says, “Now, when the sin of the church shocks the world, we got a problem. And that’s precisely what had happened in Corinth. And it wasn’t as if they didn’t know what God’s standards were. Of course, they knew. They knew because the Apostle Paul had written to them a previous time. Verse 9, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators...” (John MacArthur, “Immorality in the Grace to You, 1975)
God has called us to live holy lives. Listen to these verses from God’s Word. Ephesians 5:3, “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” First Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality”. First Peter 1:15, “as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct Church”. And Colossians 3:5 tells us to put to death all forms of sin in our lives including sexual immorality, any form of impurity, lust, evil desire. greediness, coveting, and worshiping the things of this world.
The reaction and attitude of the Corinthian church to this man’s reprehensible, unrepentant obsession is shocking. Paul says in verse 2 “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.”
The Corinthians" attitude about this situation was as great a sin as the man’s sin itself. Rather than mourning over it and disciplining the offender they took pride in it. They may have viewed it as within the limits of Christian liberty believing that their liberty in Christ made morality unimportant. Paul never gives our liberty in Christ as an excuse for condoning or committing sin. In Galatians 5:13, he says, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” But they were filled with pride. They prided themselves on their liberal thinking and broad-mindedness. They had the mistaken idea that rather than address sin as sin, condemnation and judgment on sexual perversion, the church ought to show understanding and sympathy for the pressures of life on the individual and say nothing about this evil action. John Piper commenting on the Corinthian church in a sermon on killing sin writes, “They reasoned: the body and food and drink and sex are going to be destroyed in the end. There will only be free spirits. So the body does not matter. You can eat and drink and have sex any way you like because the body is morally irrelevant. It's what you know and think that really counts (8:1–3)”. (www.desiringgod.org/messages/i-will-not-be-enslaved-by-anything) Paul vehemently opposed this view. He made it clear that the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. What was morally wrong in the Old Testament is morally wrong in the New Testament. And what is called sin in the Bible is still sin today.
Paul points out that this sin must be dealt with saying in verse 2 that instead of being puffed up with arrogance they should have been deeply sorrowful and filled with grief instead and disciplined the one who is committing this sin by removing him from among them. If left undisciplined, his sin will corrupt the entire church
No matter how small sin might be, like cancer, it can and will grow to the point that it destroys the whole body. James 1:15 tells us that when a sinful desire is born it grows until it consumes and overcomes. Paul brings this out in verses six and seven: “...Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore, purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.” God makes it clear that a church cannot allow unrepentant sin to continue. Sin cannot be left go on unabated within the church.
John Ankerberg writes, “Two things happen when sin is not dealt with within the church. First of all, the testimony of believers is damaged outside the church. But secondly, the purity of the believers is affected inside the church. You see, you have young people growing up, you have people that aren’t mature in the faith, and when you allow sin to go on and you don’t deal with it, it’s sending a message it must be okay. So, a younger person says, “Well, if it’s okay for him, it’s okay for me.” The purity of believers within the church begins to decay.”
There are those who say that Church discipline will tear up the church. Yet, if done according to the biblical guidelines as outlined in Matthew chapters 5, 7, 18; Galatians 6; Romans 12; and James 5, church discipline will strengthen the church and help to maintain the church’s credibility in a lost community. Bob Deffinbaugh says that “Discipline is the outworking of sound biblical doctrine, with the goal of keeping the church morally and doctrinally pure.”
Matthew 18:15-22 spells out the full process of church discipline, beginning with the private rebuke of a believer caught up in sin. In verse 15 we read, ““If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone (in private- NASB).” The words, “against you,” are not found in some manuscripts and translations. Richard Donovan points out that if we drop “against you,” the focus is on the other person’s sins. If we include those words, the emphasis is on the personal nature of the offense—sin committed against ourselves. Either way, Jesus’ words make sense. If we become aware of sin, whether or not directed against us, we have a responsibility to initiate action and, if possible, to bring about a resolution. This is the first step towards restoration of an errant believer. It begins with private confrontation.
The fellow Christian who is going to the brother or sister who is ensnared in a unrepented sin must first examine his own heart to ensure that his heart and motives are right. Christ challenges us in Matthew 7 saying, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Taking the beam out of our eye must be our first priority to help us maintain the right attitude. Second, we must approach the unrepentant believer in Christian love, gentleness, and concern. Third, we must go to the individual privately. Rather than fostering gossip and division, Jesus commands his people to speak privately first, “just between the two of [them].” Calvin said, we are not to "disgrace a brother, by rashly, and without necessity, divulging secret or private offenses." The last part of Matthew 18:15 speaks of the desired outcome; “If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” We go in love to the one who has sinned and call him to repentance with the sole goal of the restoration of a fellow saint.
The next step widens the circle of involvement, while not yet involving the whole church body. Verse 16 (ESV) says, “if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Those witness are there to encourage repentance, confession, and reconciliation. Geoff Chang, of Midwestern Baptist Seminary, points out that “the goal isn’t perfection but rather a heart that’s broken over sin and clinging to Christ, evidenced by humility and a willingness to follow wise counsel.” Even though this step includes multiple people it is still something that should be kept private in hopes that the person will turn from their sin before having to approach the entire church body.”
If the matter cannot be resolved during this second intervention, then the matter must be brought before the church. It is this final step that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 5. The willful rebellion of the sinner is evident, and his sin has already become public knowledge. He is unrepentant and continues in his sin. His sin and lack of repentance must now be brought before the assembled body with the hope that through the encouragement of everyone in the church the sinning saint will repent and be restored to a right relationship with Christ and His church. If not, then the individual is to be excluded from the body of believers and participation in the Lord’s Table.
John MacArthur says “When a church has done everything it can to bring a sinning member back to purity of life but is unsuccessful, that individual is to be left to his sin and his shame. If he is truly a Christian, God will not cast him away, but He may allow him to sink still deeper before he becomes desperate enough to turn from his sin.” This last step should only be undertaken after exhausting the first two steps and “where the church member sins cannot be safely overlooked without harm to the offender or to the Body of Christ.” MacArthur goes on to say, “because of the mixed messages sent by someone who professes faith in Christ and yet lives a disobedient life, the lines must be drawn as clearly as possible. We are supposed to have as little association as possible with such people.”
Look at verses 9-11(NKJV) of our text: “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.”
Second Thessalonians 3:14-15 offers this advice: “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother.” We are not to keep company, that is have social interaction with an unrepentant believer.
But we must never forget the purpose and goal of church discipline – RESTORATION, the restoration of a wayward brother or sister in Christ. According to 2 Thessalonians 3:15, we are to admonish the errant believer. The word for admonish is the Greek word nouthesis and means to confront, warn, scold, teach, instruct, and counsel. We must do so in a spirit of love and meekness without any note of superiority but without compromise on sin.
We live in a culture that says, “If you love me, you will accept me the way I am. You will never condemn or question my actions.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We love you too much to leave you in your sin. It is because we love our brothers and sisters in Christ that we admonish those who would live contrary to God’s Word. Because we care, we must not turn a blind eye to unconfessed sin. Sin is disastrous to the saint. We must use everything at our disposal to rescue our fallen comrades in Christ.
John Broger writes, “You demonstrate biblical love when you take steps to restore a fellow-believer overtaken in sin. This not only encourages a fallen believer to return to his first love of Jesus Christ, but it also gives others involved in the restoration process on-going opportunities to examine the depth of their love to the Lord.”
The Corinthian church followed Paul’s instruction and expelled the unrepentant member. Church discipline works. If done biblically and with compassion concern and care, discipline always works. This is exactly what we see in the case of this young man in 1 Corinthians 5. For we read in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore, I urge you to reaffirm your love to him.” Apparently, he had realized the depth of His sin, acknowledged it before God and the church, and repented. Someone gave this word of caution, “Confessing your sins is no substitute for forsaking your sins!” This man genuinely repented. Paul then urges the church to reaffirm him into their fellowship.
This is a great truth and encouragement to any of us who might be caught up in sin’s dread influence. As a believer no matter how far you may have wandered from the Shepherd and the sheep fold, you have not wandered farther than the arms of God’s grace can reach. Regardless of the depth of your sin or the number of years you may have wasted in rebellion God still will restore you if you but turn around.
Disclaimer: My goal is to glorify God in the proclamation of His Word. Often, my messages are taken from many sources, both known and unknown. At times I may use another minister’s wording. I attempt to acknowledge my source when possible. I make no claims of originality.